By Christina B. Farnsworth. The active adult development community eagerly anticipated The Mews. Developed by Mike Tenzer, formerly of Leisure Technologies, and designed by Barry Berkus of B3 Architects, The Mews was to be an age-targeted active adult community. The plan was to build 409 homes in Kingwood, Houston's popular master planned community.

When The Mews came out of the ground, it did not disappoint. With homes done in the English Cotswold style, the development featured heavily wooded and beautifully manicured grounds, replete with deer and lake. The idea was to sell mature buyers a lifestyle alternative based on English country living. Kingwood's marketing material dubbed it "The Living Forest."

Active adult buyers in Houston apparently didn't share in the excitement. A paltry eight homes were sold in the first year and a half, forcing developers to completely rethink the community. The bottom line: The Mews is no more.

Finding a root cause

Why did the community fail? As is usually the case, a variety of explanations surface. First, the developers planned only a single series of homes; buyers weren't enthralled by the lack of diversity in product type. Second, they overlooked a cardinal rule of active adult sales; you can't sell a lifestyle without the social amenities in place to back it up. The Mews promised a clubhouse but didn't deliver prior to sales.

The transient nature of the Houston marketplace also contributed to the failure. Realtor Leigh Marcus, with Re/Max Associates Northeast, notes that the typical Kingwood buyer, many of them relos, only stays for three years. Local real estate professionals establish relations with employers who regularly relocate employees. What that means is that even at initial sale Realtors are thinking about successful resale three years later.

When early sales at The Mews did not live up to expectations, Realtors were reluctant to show it. And Realtors account for at least 70 percent of Kingwood sales, Marcus says.

Research among local consumers by Goswick Communications, based in Houston, found not only a desire for a variety of housing types in various smaller-scaled neighborhoods but also a strong desire for a gate-guarded community.

Smaller neighborhoods

To turn the project around, managing development partner Hillman Properties re-structured and renamed the property. The new Barrington Kingwood sports an entirely different development plan. The original Mews product will still be sold, but only a neighborly 32 units.

Recast, too, was the goal of targeting the over-55 crowd. "We are not a retirement destination like Scottsdale, Ariz. And Houstonians over 55 come from the 'show me' group," says David Goswick, president of Goswick Communications. "If there is going to be a clubhouse, they don't want to be told it will be there sometime in the future, they want to see it now."

The developers are optimistic about their new plan. "Barrington's emergence as a private master planned community within one of Houston's most successful developments is exciting for everyone at Barrington," says Tom Kennedy, CEO of Kingwood Land Development Co., a joint venture company led by Hillman Properties and Jones Lang LaSalle.

To understand the new plan, it's important to know a little bit about Kingwood, which covers 14,000 acres in northeast Houston. It is presently divided into 21 villages. Already home to 120,000 residents in 39,000 households, Kingwood is approaching build out in the next two to three years.

The Barrington site is one of the best in the master plan. It is near an equestrian center, a mall, and nine holes of the lake course. So what changes would reinvigorate a desirable location within the prestigious master plan?

The developers called on a master land planner with impeccable credentials: Richard Browne of Richard P. Browne Associates, already famed for Columbia, Md. Today he has at least 16 new towns under his belt, including The Woodlands, Texas. "You have to understand local culture in order to build successfully," Browne says, "and you can't sell England to Texas."

When Browne studied the project several months ago, he found the setting beautiful, and the nearby equestrian and other entertainment amenities a real draw. One challenge would be recalibrating the existing plan--infrastructure funding had already been buried in sewers, roads, and so forth. So Browne re-platted the lots and cut the number of units from 409 to 306.

"Communities," Browne says, "are containers for people's lives." Historically, humans lived in small villages and hamlets, Browne says. His study of people tells him they value three things: Security; you want to be able to defend your turf, and the single, gated entry does that. Identity; you want to live someplace intimate enough to get to know your neighbors. Stimulation; you want to be near enough to go see the action. Combine these three elements, and you achieve a sense of allegiance, Browne says.

Barrington's product range should satisfy both Browne's criteria and attract a wide range of Houston buyers. The units will be divided into seven different product types, each further focused into smaller neighborhood enclaves. The largest grouping will be 80 townhouses. Other neighborhoods will include:

* 32 units of the original The Mews product at 50 feet wide;

* 56 homes at 65 feet wide; 18 of them on a golf course;

* 44 homes on 70 foot wide interior lots;

* 94 homes at 80 feet wide; 58 of them golf course lots.

Even though the new plan calls for fewer units, spreading product pricing from $240,000 to beyond $1 million means the recast community will actually generate more sales dollars than the original concept.

Kingwood scheduled what it calls a "soft opening" on April 3, 2003 of plans for the new concept and housing products. The clubhouse is nearly ready--the 15,500-square-foot Manor House will open May 15, with fitness and business centers as well as a concierge.

Given Browne's past successes the newly conceived Barrington Kingwood should succeed.